After the appalling deaths of 49 people, and injuries to another 53, at a gay nightclub in Orlando this week, the presidential candidates leapt to push their own agendas. For Trump, it was about immigration; he magically transformed the US-born shooter into an Afghan, in order to emphasize that he was right about banning Muslim immigration. For Clinton, it was about gun control; she called for better background checks and limits on obtaining assault weapons. But when it came to surveillance, they might as well have been singing from the same hymn-sheet.
Clinton called for an “intelligence surge,” for increased internet surveillance and suppression of First Amendment-protected speech, to prevent “radicalization”; for propaganda promoting a US-government-seal-of-approval version of Islam; praised a “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) program that marks for intervention Muslims whose politics deviate from what the FBI thinks acceptable; and suggested that people on due-process-free terrorism watchlists should not be allowed to buy guns. Then, she wrapped her actual policy proposals in a cotton-wool language of diversity and inclusion, and claimed that this is not “special surveillance on our fellow Americans because of their religion.” She talked about “Islamism” rather than “Islam”, in order to claim to not be against Islam in itself—but in her world, the government gets to define who is a good and who is a bad Muslim. Perhaps the “bad Muslims” in her mind include citizens like Ayyub Abdul-Alim, imprisoned for refusing to inform on other Muslims for the FBI, who seems only have wanted to help strengthen his community; or Tarek Mehanna, imprisoned for translating al-Qaeda documents and posting them online, who held atrocious opinions but never planned or participated in a violent attack.
Trump, with a little less cotton-wool, actually says much the same about surveillance. Domestically, the “Muslim community” will “have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad”, which is what CVE is intended to achieve, and what Mr. Abdul-Alim is in prison for resisting. Trump proposes an “intelligence gathering system second to none” that “includes better cooperation between state, local and federal officials,” and says that intelligence and law enforcement are “not being allowed to do their job.” And he wraps this up with vehement expressions of solidarity with the LGBT community.
There’s no evidence that mass surveillance, conducted and promoted by the government, works. In every country that is hit with any attack, large or small, there are calls for more surveillance, then more attacks, then more surveillance, then more attacks. It’s a vicious ratchet that we can only step off by becoming aware of it. France implemented its mass surveillance law before the Paris attacks: The law didn’t prevent them. France now lives under a state of near-martial law, where what we would call ordinary First and Fourth Amendment rights have been suspended. Britain is in the process of passing a new surveillance law that will enable the government to view your browsing history without a warrant, and already outlawed “glorifying terrorism.” They have gone farther along this ratchet than we have, but they are not reducing their chance of being attacked; instead, the purpose is to reduce the chance that a given politician will be blamed for “not doing enough” against terrorism. In truth, there is no perfect safety, and there is a small proportion of violent criminals in every country that the State is ultimately powerless to eliminate.
Our own mass surveillance systems led this “lone wolf” to be found and interviewed by the FBI, twice. But neither Clinton nor Trump articulate clearly what they thought the FBI should have done next, perhaps because there’s nothing more the FBI could lawfully have done regarding allegations of terrorist affiliation. If the aim of surveillance is for the FBI to interview suspected “radicals,” what should they do then to prevent an entirely hypothetical attack? Preventively detain them, without charge or trial, as happened to Jose Padilla? Preventively shoot them before they kill anyone else, as happened with Usaama Rahim? Do we want a State that, claiming to keep us safe, claims the right to do that to any of us? We are already part-way down that road; has it helped us so far?
State surveillance cannot save us from mass violence. It’s a poor guarantor of LGBT people’s safety. The sad truth is that there is a tendency to violence in every human being’s heart, irrespective of religion. Guns help violent people carry out their violent fantasies on a larger scale, and while comprehensive background checks wouldn’t have helped with this attack, the evidence suggests that they would probably help to prevent others. Mass surveillance doesn’t even enjoy that evidentiary advantage; last time the surveillance agencies were actually confronted on their assertion that mass surveillance had helped to prevent terrorist attacks, during the debate over the renewal of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the agencies’ claims shriveled under scrutiny like an ice-cream in the sun.
More than that, the State perpetrates mass violence on a scale much vaster than a single violent, conflicted misogynist. On a daily basis, the lives the State takes in the name of the War on Terror far exceed the number of lives taken by terrorists. We’re busy implementing a cure that causes more pain than the disease, because the State does not value enough or see enough glory in a more peaceful path. Why, then, should we trust the State with more power over the lives of Muslims and other “extremists,” here or abroad?
Instead of the State, we should look to each other. We should consider how we can build bonds of friendship and support that will encourage kindness, courtesy, and an appreciation of our mutual humanity. As we volunteer together, worship together, take care of loved ones together, work on good causes and reach out across lines of race and religion to those in distress, we step by step build the thriving “beloved community” of which Martin Luther King spoke long ago, so that even when attacks happen, they cannot break our bonds to one another. And so long as we work to trust one another, we can guard safely our thoughts, our opinions, and our liberties, even against a State that urges us constantly, for the sake of “safety,” to abandon them.